Abstinence Only Education
Learning about sex and sexual health in school is often a controversial topic. Schools might not know what or how to teach their students about puberty and the changes their body will be going through as they progress from a child to an adult. Abstinence only education is defined as teaching an individual, or group of individuals, the importance of abstaining from sexual activity to avoid AIDS/HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), pregnancy, and other health risks. “In 2006, eighty-seven percent of U.S. public and private high schools taught abstinence as the most effective method to avoid pregnancy, HIV and other STDs in a required health education course,” according to the Guttmacher Institute (2011).

The debate over sexual education in schooling began in the 1960s. This was over the basic question if sexual education should be taught in the classroom or if it should be left out for the individual and their parents to discuss. The public thought it was time for sexual education to be taught in schools and slowly over the next twenty years school started implementing sexual education/health classes into their curricula. The United State’s government began funding abstinence only programs in 1982, the same year the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFL) was established. The United States Department of Health and Human Services defines this program as, “The AFL program supports demonstration projects to develop, implement and evaluate program interventions to promote the delay from sexual activity among adolescents and to provide comprehensive health care, education and social services to pregnant and parenting adolescents” (Adolescent Family Life). Funding for abstinence only programs did not take off until 1996 when the United States government passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 with the help of President Bill Clinton. This meant that in 1998 $50 million a year would be given to funds of the Maternal and Child Health Block Grant for abstinence only education. This bill also defined abstinence only education in the United States as:
abstinence.jpgA) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;
C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;
E) teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society;
G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances; and
H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity (Keefe, 2007).
Abstinence only programs are constantly under so much scrutiny and controversy because their effectiveness is called into question. One side of the argument presents information that abstinence only education works in preventing teens from engaging in sexual activity by teaching the individual that the only way to stay healthy is to avoid sex and that they should save themselves for marriage. The other side argues that abstinence only education does not work because it does not teach the individual methods of contraception like a comprehensive sex education would.

Abstinence only education’s main focus is to steer teenagers away from being sexually active. This is done by not teaching about methods of contraception or how to use a condom properly, avoid talk of abortion, and providing examples of various sexually transmitted infections and diseases a person may be exposed to if they are sexually active (as a scare tactic rather than an informative method).

A comprehensive sex education teaches abstinence, but also expands its information incase the individual would choose to become sexually activities. Topics in a comprehensive sex education course differ from an abstinence only education in that it discusses methods of contraception (such as birth control for women) and how to properly use a condom and the talk about sexually transmitted diseases is not used as a scare tactic but rather to inform the individual of the risks associated with each sexually transmitted disease.
Various studies have been conducted by organizations, including the United States government. These studies are done to prove which type of sexual education works in the United States to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and decrease the number of teen pregnancies, among other things.

In an article written by Tamar Lewin of the New York Times, Lewin discusses a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. John B. Jemmott III. In this study 662 African American students were presented with either an abstinence only class or a comprehensive sex education class (control group). After two years, the results concluded that approximately one-third of the students who took the abstinence only class had become sexually active after the class while nearly 50% of the control group had become sexually active. This study was the first of it’s kind because it was the first study to prove that abstinence only education was effective. But this study has of course come under fire because of the demographics that were studied. African Americans were used because they are a minority group who is at a great risk of contracting STIs and HIV/AIDS (Lewin 2010).

While this study has raised eyebrows most people still believe that abstinence only programs do not work. Laura Sessions Stepp of The Washington Post she reviews a national study approved by Congress in 1997 proved this in an article. In this study 2000 middle school aged children from rural and urban communities were taught their school’s sexual education. The results were the same for abstinence only and comprehensive education; about 50% of the students in each group were abstinent. This study was supported by many people because of its structure, so many people (and Congress) had to go back and rethink the idea of abstinence only programs (2007).
These are only two of the hundreds of studies that have been conducted in the United States. States have their own policies when it comes to sexual education. A study in 2002 by the Guttmacher Institute states that 39 have sexual education requirements and 21 of these states also require STD education. The 11 other states leave sexual education requirements up to the local school districts. When it comes to the individual schools, the state often gives them guidelines but the rest is up to them (Collins, 2002). Abstinence only programs have to be taught if the school is receiving federal funding but as of the past couple of years, abstinence only programs are being ousted by the federal government.


Collins, Chris. (March 2002). Abstinence Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education: What are the arguments? What is the evidence? Retrieved from http://ari.ucsf.edu/science/reports/abstinence.pdf

Guttmacher Institute. (n.d.). In brief: fact sheet, facts on american teen's sources of information about sex. Retrieved from http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/FB-Teen-Sex-Ed.html

Keefe, Marilyn. (July, 2007). The history of federal abstinence-only funding. Advocates for Youth, Retrieved from http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/429?task=view

Lewin, Tamar. (2, February 2010). Quick response to study of abstinence education. The New York Times

Sara Palin Palin Information Blog

Stepp, Laura Sessions. (14, April 2007). Study casts doubt on abstinence-only programs. The Washington Post

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Population Affairs. (n.d.). Adolescent Family Life